How brave is Gregory Benford? Well some might say very! After all writing a novel set on Mars following close on the heels of Kim Stanley Robinsons unbelievable Red Mars Trilogy, and Ben Bovas superb duo of Mars novels could have been considered a foolish undertaking. However I am happy to report he has managed to write a gripping and exciting tale, and has steered a course to Mars that has much originality and freshness within its pages.
What has saved Gregory Benfords Martian Race from being a poor second to the before mentioned novels, is the new approach and fresh angle he has used to explore Mars in this book. Like Ben Bova's Mars Missions this tale of Martian exploration is set just a handful of years in the future, 2018 to be exact. The technology utilized to take the crew to the red planet and to keep them alive on this harsh world are in fact the currant designs at this moment on the drawing boards of the worlds space agency's. So an element of realism is present throughout the whole novel. Gregory Benford is of course tied to elements that feature in all books of this genre. When you pick up one of these tales of exploration you just know things are going to go wrong. Our explorers will have to overcome great hardships before reaching their goals. But at least in this book those standard formulas are tackled in an inventive way.
Martian Race opens with what must be the ultimate in "things going wrong" NASA's first mission to Mars actually exploding on the launch pad! Which, it must be said, does not seem the ideal way to begin a story covering mans first voyage to the red planet. This however is the trigger for the whole plotline of this novel. Having, of course, spent many billions on its Mars ship, NASA is reluctant and hard pressed to fund a second attempt. What emerges in its place is reminiscent of the old aviation prizes that were put up as an offer to encourage a pioneering effort in the early days of flight.
Instead of funding its own Mars mission, and taking another bashing in the media and by Congress for anything which might again go wrong, NASA decides to put up a $30 billion prize for any consortium, which reaches Mars and meets the scientific goals of the first tragic mission. And they must return its crew home safely. To make entry into this project worthwhile, the team involved would have to get Mars on a shoestring, if any of the $30 billion is to be left for its investors.
Enter John Axelrod, a man who believes he can put such a project together. The way to Mars as he sees it is not the elaborate and complex way NASA had chosen in the past, but a radical new concept known as "Mars Direct" conceived by Dr Robert Zubrin, founder/member of the International Mars Society. Mars Direct had long been championed as a low cost and inventive way of reaching our neighbouring world. An obvious choice, for any team looking to win the Mars prize. Estimates for this type of mission are in the region of $20 billion for placing a four-man crew on the surface of Mars. Which translates into plenty of dollars left over for any eager investors.
There is no shortage of wannabe mars explorers willing to join Axelrods project. The prospect of a second chance to go to Mars, instead of at best Earth orbit insure that a highly competent crew is soon in place. Included in that four-man crew is married couple, Julia (NASA astronaut) and Viktor (cosmonaut hero of Russia). The way their relationship is explored under the extreme conditions experienced on mars is yet another interesting feature of this story, as with all the characters in this novel. You really feel you know them all very early in the story. With our crew assembled and with Mars Direct plans and blue prints long ago drawn up, plus its inventor Dr Robert Zubrin on hand to oversee its engineering and hardware construction the whole mission begins to take shape.
All is going well until the one horse race to Mars suddenly turns into a two-horse affair. The Chinese "Airbus" consortium, shrouded in secrecy joins the competition. Axelrod is now faced with not just pulling of a flawless Mars mission to take NASA's prize, but now must accept the prospect of his team coming back from Mars with nothing. The pressure is on! A financial disaster looms. The "Martian Race" is now truly underway.
Axelrods' Mars team arrive at the red planet more than a year ahead of their rivals. All looks good for the Mars Direct team. But the whole race is thrown open when it is revealed that the Chinese Airbus consortium seem to be making headway a little too fast. Espionage reveals nuclear rocket technology from the former Soviet Union is powering the rival craft. Airbus could put into operation a smash and grab mission. And even be ready to leave during the same 2-3 month launch window. Axelrod knows it is vital his slower craft gets a big head start. The Chinese also have the added advantage of merely replicating the work Axelrods team have accomplished. TV news has given them all the locations they need to visit on Mars to complete the scientific requirements of the mission. But could a staggering find on Mars make the whole issue of a race seem unimportant? Or will it make getting home first even more vital?
The plotline of Martian Race means I can go no further with outlining the story. Who wants to know the outcome of a book anyway? Let alone the outcome of a race. So I will wind up my review here. And finish by saying that Gregory Benford either went into this novel with a vast knowledge of currant Mars exploration, or his research is impeccable. Either way I must congratulate him on a well-accounted realistic portrait of Mars and how mankind will journey there. The methods of travelling to our neighbouring world described in the Mars Direct style mission are in fact real.
So to is the character of Dr Robert Zubrin, its creator . His remarkable work has taken manned Mars flights out of sci-fi novels like this one and into reality. Anybody reading this novel may wish to follow it up by reading Robert Zubrins excellent book "The Case For Mars". A fascinating science fact book outlining all elements of Mars Direct, a plan that has seen the cost of going to Mars reduced by around $400 billion dollars. And one, which NASA has now taken up. If you like sci-fi read this book, even if you don't read sci-fi but follow closely the space program read it anyway. And if you enjoy a good gripping edge of your seat thriller and a tale of adventure you should also give it a go. As it happens I enjoy all of these! So you will not be surprised to hear me say I found Martian Race a hugely enjoyable read. And I also feel it is a good deal better than many other novels of this type that have received a lot more acclaim and attention.
Title: Martian Race